When A’ja Wilson announced in April 2014 that she would play for South Carolina women’s basketball, it marked the recruiting high point of the Dawn Staley era at USC.
By persuading the nation’s No. 1 high school player to stay home and play for the Gamecocks, Staley secured ESPN’s second-ranked recruiting class in the country, the highest the program has ranked in Staley’s 11 years in Columbia.
That recruiting success eventually paid off in 2017, when Wilson led Carolina to a national championship — with plenty of help from transfers Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis. The recruiting class of 2014, however, remains the only top-five class South Carolina and Staley have had — the next highest are the classes of 2008 (No. 7) and 2017 (No. 10). Over the past nine years, USC’s classes have gone unranked by ESPN four times.
As Staley has said, recruiting is a difficult process, and she doesn’t make things any easier by refusing to promise starting spots or playing time to prospects.
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Enter Jolette Law.
Law came to USC a year ago from Tennessee, where she was known as an ace recruiter who helped the Lady Vols reel in the nation’s top-ranked class in 2017. She replaced the departed Nikki McCray-Penson, Staley’s longtime assistant and lead recruiter.
According to Law, Staley’s approach of not over-promising anything to recruits fit perfectly with her own philosophy.
“My process is, I keep it as real and as 100 as it’s possible to be, because I don’t want anyone to say, ‘Well, coach Law said that this was gonna happen and it didn’t happen,’” Law told The State. “So as much as possible I try to understand what the prospect needs and is looking for, and I try to sell what we have. I don’t over-promise, oversell, overdo anything. I just try to let them see, this is what it is, this is what you’re going to be a part of if you come to the University of South Carolina ... and the real ones respect that.”
Staley said she saw immediate results in bringing Law aboard, as South Carolina went from noncontender to one of two finalists for the No. 1 rated player in the class of 2017, guard Christyn Williams.
“We got the No. 1 player in the country on campus, who had told us no, shut the door on us and we had moved on. But she had a good relationship with (Law) at Tennessee, just told her a little bit about us and what we stand for, and we stood at the end one of two,” Staley said.
Williams ended up choosing Connecticut, a school that began recruiting her in the eighth grade. But Staley said she believes South Carolina was making up ground and might have swayed her if there had been more time.
The Gamecocks ended up with the No. 16-ranked class for 2018, highlighted by the nation’s top-rated point guard, Destanni Henderson, who committed before Law arrived in Columbia. Heading into 2019, Law has now had the chance to work on players for USC for an extended period of time.
Whether her efforts will pay off is still unclear — South Carolina is still without any commits in the class of 2019 or beyond. However, the Gamecocks remain among the finalists for seven of ESPN’s top 12 players — wings Haley Jones, Rickea Jackson and Breanna Beal, forwards Laeticia Amihere and Aliyah Boston and guards Jordan Horston and Zia Cooke. Jackson, Horston and Cooke, all top-10 players, visited South Carolina the weekend of Sept. 1.
USC and Law have also made it through preliminary cuts for some of 2020’s top players.
Law and Staley expressed optimism and excitement about how they work together and their vision for recruiting. While Law is more extroverted and better at establishing contact with recruits, Staley is “shy,” as Law puts it, meaning it takes her longer to connect with players, but she develops deep relationships when she does.
“Who she is is who she is. She doesn’t play games,” Staley said of Law. “She just gets down to the meat and potatoes of who you are as a person and she makes you feel good. Me on the other hand, it takes me a while to do that because recruits, they don’t let people in, and I don’t let people into our family and me until I get to know you, and then we let our guards down. That’s my style; her style is a little bit different.”
“I just think I’m a people’s person,” Law said. “God gave me the gift to be able to relate to people of all nationalities, colors, size, in sports, not in sports. I enjoy getting to know people, and I think that’s one of my strengths, relating to kids, players, relating to parents. Coach Staley, she complements me because she knows how to seal the deal. She’s a woman of character, a woman everyone wants to know, one of the most decorated players in the country, a very successful coach. Everything that she’s touched, she’s been very successful.
“We work well together. I’m on all the time and I know that’s not one of the things that she loves to do, so as much as possible I try to use her strategically … because she is a woman who’s wearing a lot of different hats.
Law, along with her fellow assistants Fred Chimel and Lisa Boyer, are South Carolina’s first points of contact with potential recruits, though their job lately has been less about identifying under-the-radar prospects and more about sifting through the top players who want to consider USC.
“The good situation that we’re in is that we’re known. We’re visible. Everyone knows about the University of South Carolina. We just won a national championship, A’ja Wilson’s doing extremely well. We have people calling us,” Law said. “We’re just working diligently trying to get ahead, get the 2020 class familiar with our campus, even 2021.”
The downside of that is that top prospects sometimes wait until the end of signing periods to commit — Williams didn’t choose until November of her senior year. As a result, Staley and Law must have contingency plans in case those recruits choose another blue-blood program, while at the same time considering whether to take other players who want to commit more quickly.
“Here’s how we recruit. We got our top-notch, we call (them) As,” Staley explained. “And then we got our Bs and Cs. So we really concentrate on our As, we keep the Bs at bay just in case it doesn’t work out. And then the Cs are just in case the Bs don’t work out. And our coaching staff, they do a really good job at, obviously all of them, but especially the Bs and Cs, that’s hard to be able to juggle it and have the right conversation to someone who may want to jump out and commit, and if they do do that, if they’re that good, we gotta go get them.”
Further complicating matters is a trend Law is noticing among younger classes: Players are starting to commit earlier and earlier in their high school careers. That means staffs have to establish relationships with players who are just starting, or in some cases have yet to start, high school.
So right now, while Staley and Law continue to work on cementing a highly rated class of 2019, their hope is to eventually work a class or two ahead.
“My sole responsibility is to work our 2019 class, and the 20s, 21s, 22s; every now and then I’ll get a call, but if we were done with 19s, I could be on the phone with 20s,” Staley said. “But that hasn’t been the case in a long time ... Some programs have already gotten two and three 2019 recruits, and we’re not one of them.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Christyn Williams was the No. 1 ranked player in the class of 2017. She was the No. 1 ranked player in 2018.